by Phil Kehres
NCAA Basketball 2009: March Madness Edition (rated E for everyone, available exclusively for Xbox Live Arcade)
Release dates: March 11 & 18, 2009.
March Madness is a special time of the year. The thrills, the drama, the Cinderella stories — it brings out the crazy in every college hoops fan. But even the most fervent fan of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tourney would be crazy to spend more than three hours playing this pile of tripe.
NCAA Basketball 2009: March Madness Edition is meant to serve as a stripped-down version of Electronic Arts’ latest iteration of its NCAA Basketball series. The idea was to distill the most intense parts of the March Madness experience — including true to life 2009 brackets as a free download starting today, Wednesday, March 18th — into one value-priced download, allowing a virtual outlet for tourney fans who don’t want to drop $60 on the full version of the game. It sounds nice in theory; in fact, the model is potentially groundbreaking. It’s a shame, then, that the whole thing is executed so poorly.
Full disclosure — I have not played the full version on NCAA Basketball 2009, so everything in this review is based solely off the March Madness Edition (MME) download. That said, there is little to like about this game. It’s a very simple idea: pick a team, or choose to control multiple teams, and play through the NCAA tournament bracket. There are no other modes, and no online functionality. You can’t even play exhibition games — the team you play will always be determined by the brackets. Navigating through the over-complicated menus, you can also find cursory bios and scouting reports on each team and a roster edit feature that also allows you to manually name players, because NCAA regulations forbid game companies from using players’ names. Given the lack of options, the burden falls on the gameplay which, though understandably simple given the game’s $15 price tag, does not bode well for this title.
Fans will surely want to take their favorite team to the title, but most will quickly realize they don’t have the patience to sit through six games of clunky controls, stiff and awkward animations and Dick Vitale’s putrid commentary. MME’s controls are quite complex, creating an unacceptably high learning curve for a game meant to be dived into head first. Players move robotically, and animations look unnatural. Thundering dunks and high-energy plays that fans crave are both difficult to execute and wholly unsatisfying when pulled off. The game supposedly revolves around the idea of tempo. Each team has an optimal tempo, meaning some play better with run-and-gun offenses and some like to keep the pace slow. The idea is to play to the best of your team’s ability with the optimal tempo in mind. In reality, the mechanic boils down to nothing more than listening to the commentators make awkward, unnatural-sounding references to the tempo of the game. Some teams are better and some are worse, but the difference in style of play is hardly noticeable.
The only thing that could have saved the game was a faithful recreation of the March Madness atmosphere. Unfortunately, the game fails in this department as well. All the arenas from the 2009 tournament are present, and big name teams have their mascots on the sidelines. The realism ends there. Cheerleaders are faceless. The crowd adds nothing but shouts of “THREE!” when someone chucks up a jumper from beyond the arc. There are no unique fight songs for the teams; players are treated to the same two generic, grating fight songs played repeatedly through the game. The commentary, augmented by inane sideline reports from a virtual Erin Andrews (i.e. “The coach says his team needs to play hard and have fun!”), is bad enough to make you mute your TV. If you do manage to get through the whole dance and win the title, you’re treated to a terrible montage with some awful, cheesy song, and then you’re kicked back to the home menu — where you realize there’s no incentive to play any longer.
All of these features add up to a game that is just barely more annoying and cringe-inducing than it is boring. If you’re dedicated to your school enough to subject yourself to more than a couple hours of this garbage, you’d be much better off saving your $15 and putting it towards tickets to see the actual tournament.
Final verdict: 1/5
(Phil Kehres also is the co-author of Excuse Me, Is This Your Blog?)
(For more background on the NCAA tournament, please see: "March Madness 2009: The Field of 65.")
(The promotional screenshot of NCAA Basketball 2009: March Madness Edition is from Electronic Arts. To see a trailer for the game, please check below.)
NCAA Basketball 2009: March Madness Edition
NCAA Basketball 2009
National Collegiate Athletic Association
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